Globalized corporations, politicians, and small businesses all use branding in an effort to control their message and direct it at a specific audience. In our visually stimulated economy, brand image translates to product quality in the eyes of consumers. Branding is a tool that is essential to capitalism. When used effectively, good branding helps consumers navigate the marketplace. Branding can also be used to persuade consumers into aligning their views with a particular product, idea, or experience. As personal identity plays a growing role in the decision making process of consumers, brands contribute to and target subcultures within the marketplace. In what ways does branding interact with identity politics and cultural economies in a globalized post-modern economy?
The nature of branding is visual, although, visual media must be considered in relationship to its context. That is to say that what can be seen is not exclusively visual in the way in which it is perceived or experienced. Visuality is a term attributed to the relationship between something that can be seen and the way that something is to be seen in relation to its context. Visuality refers to the packaged experience that is presented to a viewer whose job it is to unpack and process a “visual” experience through contextualization. According to Nicholas Mirzoeff in The Right to Look, the viewers own intent and critical thought can be summarized as their “right to look”. As producers of “visual” media and culture, graphic designers have a responsibility to engage their work from a subjective perspective intended for a subjective audience, by employing their own “right to look”.
WJT Miller, writing on the context of art and “visual” media in “There are No Visual Media”, describes visuality as the total experience of consuming something visual.1 To break this down further, something that can be seen can be engaged with on many more levels than its optical existence. For example, the context in which something was created, the subject of its contents, and the context of its consumption, should all be considered when experiencing something “visual”. Graphic designers are always considering these aspects of visuality when packaging a “visual” experience for their audience.
Visuality is not confined to the realm of fine art or “visual” media. Nicholas Mirzoeff claims that visuality is a tool used to perpetuate the status quo of patriarchy, imperialism, and, capitalism in his essay “The Right to Look”. 2 Visuality is censored, imposed, ands justified by the authority figure in each individual circumstance. However, visuality is challenged by the individual’s “right to look”. The right to look upends objective visuality and acknowledges the subjective gaze. The observation that everybody is different, and abides by their own set of ideals, has been ignored by modernism. Post Ford industrialism has implemented an autonomous society that is driven by capitalism. People have been forged into standardized, interchangeable parts. The plantation/slave dynamic has been transformed into a systemic economy that prioritizes profit over people. The plantation owners are now shareholders, banks, and the militarized police. The slaves are now tax paying citizens that willfully subscribe to the many titles of which they are forced to choose. The over-consumption of resources for profit, is not a sustainable means of production. The well will run dry, emptied by the collective greed of humanity. It is the job of the designer to, infiltrate these systems by engaging with the culture of visuality, interjecting our own experiences, voices, and views into the systems that rule.
The right to look is at risk of being stripped away by the same authorities that enforce visuality. Local surveillance, CCTV, location tracking, the NSA’s online surveillance program, and even Apple’s facial recognition software, have pervaded contemporary visuality, attempting to validate authority with objective observation. The right to look is being replaced by a central authoritative gaze that is powered by the victims of its voyeur. However, the right to look is embedded into an artist’s practice. Artists, as culture producers, can create counter narratives that challenge or expose the shortcomings of the privileged authority’s status quo.
As creators of visual culture we have the ability contribute to a more sustainable model. Graphic design is a cultural medium that “visually” communicates the message of institutions, brands, products, ideas, trends, and various other entities. Traditionally a graphic designer, or “Commercial Artist” on the subject of modernity, is faced with the task of objectively communicating a message to an infinitely subjective audience. This paradox is one that heavily relies on principles of visuality that are already privileged in an attempt to impact the cultural record. Graphic designers have a responsibility to both their clients and culture to accurately package and distribute messages prepared for an anonymous and subjective audience.